By Sara Bristoll

Raising children can be a costly affair. There are your typical costs like food, clothing and shelter that you pay for throughout their entire lives. When they’re younger, this is compounded with the high costs of diapers, formula and even day care. As they get older, you start thinking about all of the money you’ll save when they’re potty trained, or in school and don’t need a full day in day care.

Then, they come home from school with a flyer for after-school soccer, or they learn their friends take gymnastics or dance, and your pocketbook starts to look thinner again. While families spend an average of $396 per year on related costs (think fees, tournaments, uniforms, equipment), 21 percent of parents with children in athletic programs admit to spending $1,000 or more every year. If your children want to be elite gymnasts or cheerleaders, or be a shoo-in for varsity-level sports, start saving while they’re young. The cost for elite gyms or private sports lessons to give them the edge run from a few thousand dollars to well over $10,000.

How to start saving for extracurricular activities
So, how do these parents afford to click their heels and shell out $10,000 a year (in some cases) for their child to be the best of the best? Well, it most likely didn’t happen overnight. Unless your child is an absolute prodigy, you’ll likely start your child at a lower level (where the costs are quite a bit less expensive) and work up from there.

Start by putting away a nominal amount each month for your child’s extracurricular activities — $50 each month is more than enough to cover the average costs. Every year, or every time they move up a level and the costs get more expensive, adjust your spending plan to cover the new fees. If you start at age 5 and increase your extracurricular budget by $20 a month every year, in total you’ll have saved and spent about $26,520 by age 18.

The rising costs of uniforms, equipment and traveling
With most extracurricular activities, regardless of whether they’re athletics or arts related, the cost to participate is just the beginning. As a parent, you could be footing the bill for new uniforms every year, equipment when it wears out — or they outgrow it — and travel as well as tournament fees. This has even become the case in many school programs following educational budget cuts.

If you’re starting to feel the financial pinch, talk to your other team parents about crowdsourcing the costs with fundraisers. You don’t have to be salesperson of the year to be successful at fundraising. Here are some great options:

  • Restaurant nights: During a specific timeframe on a specific date, restaurants will donate a portion of their profits to your organization. These usually have to be set up in advance and, depending on the restaurant, a flyer may be needed by each table coming in for your organization to get credit for the sales.
  • Snack time sales: Anyone who wants to fundraise for the organization can purchase candy bars or bags of popcorn (there are companies that provide these specifically for fundraising) to sell to neighbors, friends, family and coworkers. While there is an up-front cost associated with this one, it’s a great option, especially if you work in a large office with plenty of coworkers looking for an afternoon snack.
  • Bowling for money: There are a few different ways you can approach this. One is working with a bowling alley to create an event where you earn a portion of the proceeds from those who show up to your event. The other is to collect pledges from friends, family or neighbors for every bowling pin you (or your child) knocks down. Make sure to take a photo of your final count, so you have proof to show how much of a bowling master you really are.

Less costly alternatives
Have you ever seen your kids beg to go play at the park, only to change their minds five minutes later and want to do something completely different? Well, it’s the same for most kids as they stretch their wings: they’re trying to figure out what they really like to do for fun. So why would you, the parent, pay hundreds of dollars to enroll them in soccer when there’s a good chance they’ll get bored halfway through the season and want to try something else?

Thankfully, there are cheaper alternatives out there that allow your kids to get their feet wet without draining your accounts. First, look online for church leagues, YMCA programs or even city programs. There are many low-cost, or possibly even free, beginning level sessions that are long enough for your kids to learn something but short enough that they’ll get through the program about the time they’re ready to quit if they don’t like it. Another great option is to look for friendly leagues to join. Competitive leagues tend to have higher entrance and tournament fees, which make them a great place to grow in to but not necessarily to start.

The reasoning behind it all
If it’s so expensive to allow our kids to participate in extracurricular activities, why do we even bother? Aside from the obvious reward of seeing the excitement and pride in our children’s faces when they score a goal or perform with the choir, there have been studies that show a correlation between extracurricular activities and success.

One study found that students participating in extracurricular activities were three times more likely to have a 3.0 GPA average than students who did not. And those students who did not participate were more likely to have unexcused absences.

Other research shows students with outside activities average 45 points higher on the SAT in math and 53 points higher in verbal skills. School dropout rates are close to 1 percent for high school athletes. For students not involved in high school sports, that rate jumps to 11 percent.

There are many different reasons parents and children want to be involved in extracurricular activities, so find ways to save, fundraise and fit it in your spending plan. Your kids will appreciate the chance to grow, learn and meet new friends. Who knows? Maybe one day they’ll be the next Simone Biles or Misty May-Treanor.